The Jupiter Theft

Donald Moffitt

the-jupiter-theft600

Well, this didn’t play out the way I expected. This was for many years my go-to book for how not to write hard SF but on rereading after a lapse of 20 years I find a book that while flawed definitely has strengths.

I am not sure if they give a specific year this is set in but it’s closer to the end of the 21st century than its beginning. The US, now centered in Texas, still exists despite an attempt by New England to leave that was put down with harsh political measures and nuclear weapons. There is what amounts to a caste system and if you are not lucky enough to be born into GovCorp’s service, you pass life as a presumed criminal and/or political dissident.

China, now the other superpower, is still a gray Maoist state. The Soviets are gone, having been vanquished the “the police action of 2003-2008”, Europe is irrelevant, Greater Japan is around but not involved in the plot and and I don’t think India is ever mentioned. I am a bit surprised not to see Brazil mentioned.

Despite ongoing rivalry comparable to the Cold War, the US and China are working on a joint crewed mission to Jupiter. We see right off the bat that the security measures both sides are taking are placing the mission in danger, as a spy camera disguises as a bolt fails under load. The respective security organs of the two governments have far too much power to be effectively opposed and so most people settle for keeping their heads down.

The mission to Jupiter begins to look a little irrelevant when astronomers note a new x-ray source that turns out to be surprisingly close to the solar system and headed directly towards it; since it is powerful enough to sterilize the Earth down to the bottom of mine shafts, even mere survival seems moot, let alone exploration. Everyone is relieved when the invading world slows and goes into orbit around the Sun and later Jupiter, or they would be if this did not make it clear the wanderer is under intelligent control.

Working under a set of unrealistic assumptions designed to make the people in power feel good (and with not one but two semi-autonomous nuclear weapon teams added to the crew) the Jupiter ship heads out on a four-month mission to what very quickly develops into a curb-stomp battle with the immeasurably technologically superior aliens.

One of the few surviving humans, Jameson, gets dragged off away from the rest (who are stuck in a zoo for captured animals). By luck and the direct intervention of the author he has just the right mix of skills and moments of luck to uncover most of the story of the Cygnans, who they are, what they are, where they came from and where they are going. This puts him in the position later on of knowing enough to see the scheme some of the security people have come up with to give the aliens one from Uncle Sam will have the unintended side-effect of 1/3rd chance of dooming humanity to extinction.

The problem is, team extremist overreaction have all the guns.

Why did I buy this? Because it was hard SF and there was a time when I’d buy pretty anything SFnal that had a Del Rel colophon on it. At this time they were Larry Niven’s publishers (before he jumped ship for Tor) and I think Lester del Rey kept an eye out for authors who could fill the same sort of niche as Niven, which is why Moffitt and Hogan1, to name two, popped up in the late 1970s. This would be closer to the Big Dumb Object end of Niven’s range than the Beowulf Shafer hijinks; the title comes from the alien habit of using gas giants as combination fuel tanks/radiation shielding for their star ships.

(it wouldn’t surprise me if del Rey picked Killough and Slonczewski to fill the same niche, down at the Shafer end of the scale)

I discovered on rereading it that my annoyance at the broken parts overwrote the stuff for which Moffitt should be praised. Chief amongst this is an attempt by him to have alien aliens. The beings responsible for re-purposing Jupiter don’t reproduce as humans do, although it takes the protagonist a while to realize he is projecting human patterns onto an alien species. Similarly the aliens from 61 Cygni, who were taken prisoner when the Cygans stopped there, superficially look terrestrial but turn out to differ significantly in detail once humans get around to paying closer attention.

There were also some stage-setting details that surprised me, like the fact people are using what are clearly close analogs of tablets in a design linage where styluses didn’t go out of fashion and a description of futuristic cameras that seemed to use charge-coupled displays. CCDs date back to 1969 but I don’t recall other SF authors realizing the potential.

I did have some questions that I didn’t get answers for, like where the US gets its billion people? Granted, they’ve annexed Canada and perhaps other countries as well but they’d pretty much have to either have annexed the whole of the new world or had much steeper birth rates than we actually saw. I suspect the answer is the latter.

I would have been surprised to see that the Jupiter ship used a 11boron+p reaction except this is where I first ran into the idea. The set-up to use it seems awfully kludgy (in large part because half of the system is Chinese, half is American and neither wants the other side to know how their side of the power system works) and it was never clear to me why they were using 11B+p. It’s true the reaction produces fewer neutrons but as far as I can tell that’s not mentioned, plus they are using a D+T reactor to get the 11B+p reaction started.

The social stuff is dated but no more off base than other SF from this period. This was written in that time when male SF authors had discovered one could have sex with women but before they discovered women might like to have some say in when they have sex and with whom. It’s possible the ‘part of your duty to the crew is to be promiscuous’ stuff is there to underline how authoritarian this particular US is but I suspect a lot of this is just a reflection of the 1970s zeitgeist.

What annoyed me about this book is two-fold:

One is that the author fails to consider the implications of some of the details he relates to the reader. For example, he has the Cygnans originate at Cygnus X-1 (or what became Cygnus X-1) and while he understands how quickly such stars evolve, he doesn’t seem to understand the implications for the evolution of life on planets orbiting those worlds. It’s not that conditions will be difficult, it’s that the planet’s crust will barely have had time to solidify before various exciting events evaporate the place. The evolution of complex life in the short interval allowed seems impossible.

[The easy fix is the Cygnans evolved somewhere else, and settled the world orbiting future Cygnus X-1 on the grounds it would last long enough for the purposes of the colonists. Let their great-great-nth descendents work out what to do when the time comes]

Another example is the photon drive the aliens use to move between ships. As we all know, P = FC, which means a 100 kg alien zipping along at 10 m/s/s is generating a 300 GW beam out the back of their broomstick. The humans worry about being swarmed by the aliens but really they should worry more about  the aliens deciding to react to the humans who’ve just run through one of the alien ark ships like weasels in a chicken house by carving the human ship into small, harmless bits.

[He does acknowledge the conversion drives produce a lot of energy]

Oh, and despite his attempts to imagine the alien, there’s a needless ‘Earth is standard’ angle. Although the aliens come from a 1/3rd gravity home world, they prefer to accelerate their ships at 9.8 m/s/s…

The other, the one that really irked me when I was a teenager, is he misses the mark on certain classes of problems over and over. For example, Moffitt puts the average distance between stars (6 light years) together with the distance the Cygnans have travelled (10,000 LY) and concludes there are about 10,000/6 or about 1700 stars on a direct line between Sol and Cygnus X-1.

This pales beside the issue that enraged me as the sort of teenager who’d tried to abuse his connection to faculty to get time on the machines in the red room to make calculations pertaining to star flight under certain highly unrealistic assumptions, which is Moffitt fundamentally does not get relativity even to the limited degree a moderately bright farm kid thought he did. Specifically he looked at 300,000,000/9.8 m/s/s and concluded this meant you could get arbitrarily close to the speed of light in about a year. It followed from this star flight would consist of a year getting as close to the speed of light as you could survive without the interstellar medium abrading you to nothing, a short period cruising (letting Uncle Albert reduce the time in ship frame) and a year slowing down.

This is not me reading things into the text:

Mike leaned back, looking smug. “So at that speed, the time dilation effect is a hundred to one, right? So the subjective time for the crew is maybe two years and two weeks to Alpha Centauri compared to two years and six weeks to 61 Cygni.”

AUGH! Not only are the numbers wrong but ‘subjective’ suggests there’s a preferred frame. A PREFERRED FRAME!

Well, it matters.

In any case, a flawed work but not without some praiseworthy elements and not nearly as bad as I had remembered.

If you’d like to try this novel for yourself, an ebook of it seems to be available here. Although probably you have to be in the UK. And that ‘p.o.r’ makes me wonder about availability.

North Americans can find it here.


  1. I am probably obligated to review Inherit the Stars, aren’t I?

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